Asked what he considered the most pressing problem in the American church, one seminary president offered a one-word response: “Literalism.” His diagnosis bears reflection. How we read is immensely consequential, since we rely on a sacred text as a means of connection with a living God. When Luther insisted on “sola scriptura” as a corrective to abuses of ecclesiastical authority, he opened up not only the richest conversation in history for the priesthood of believers, but also a large can of worms.
As literary critic George Steiner points out, Hebrew is one of the most ambiguous languages on earth. And Greek draws distinctions that do not survive translation. And the cultural assumptions of the ancient folk who sat on a hillside and heard the Beatitudes differ from ours profoundly. It takes careful, ongoing scholarship to help us imagine how they heard what they heard.
Sadly, hermeneutical criteria become lines in the sand, partitioning the family of God into camps where we huddle among the like-minded, clinging to readings we have come to rely on. Literalists warn their children away from the slippery lot who invoke words like “myth” and “metaphor” with alarming frequency. The latter often take refuge in the comforts of their learning and lose something childlike and open-hearted in the course of “higher” critical debate. Part of our work together is to provide a safe space for that debate, and then to have the courage to have it.
We need courage because Jesus’ directives, while they resonate with wisdom, compassion, and prophetic suggestion, rarely resolve the ethical ambiguities they leave in their wake. Those who take a hard line on divorce have to consider why the woman at the well was authorized to preach the good news. Those who regard wealth as a sign of blessing may be forgetting the dire parable of the rich man and his bigger barns. A good many earnest believers have been frustrated when they come upon “Whoever is not with me is against me,” only to find elsewhere, “whoever is not against us is for us.” Such ambiguities frustrate seekers of truth now as, no doubt, they did then. Yet when Jesus spoke, he left people “amazed.”
AMAZEMENT is an appropriate first response to an encounter with the Christ of the gospels: To be amazed is to find oneself in a maze, knowing there is a way, but unable to foresee the whole path. It is also to recognize that you have come upon something incompatible with rational expectations—instant healings, multiplication of loaves, the dead brought back to life. Paradoxes (“He who saves his life shall lose it”), mysterious allusions (“Other sheep have I that are not of this fold”), and the strange use of verb tenses (“I have overcome the world”) can baffle the most committed readers.
We navigate those bafflements best when we cling to our “sure and certain hope”—that we are held firmly in our seeking by the One who will not let us go—and when we share the Eucharist that nourishes us even in our darkest uncertainties. Still, the debates remain, and they summon us into a conversation we avoid at our peril.
Sensing that peril, my own description of what threatens the church in the U.S. might be “dumbing down.” That inelegant term includes oversimplified Sunday school materials, unchallenging feel-good sermons, and airbrushed images of Jesus, all contemporized to suit a market niche. It includes the ways we confuse evangelism with marketing, and the presumption that filling pews requires a steady diet of simple certainties. It creates an unhealthy divide between academic theologians who maintain careful critical reading practices and pastors who serve a population whose thought and conversation have been heavily influenced by mass media. American church leaders labor under an unprecedented burden of contaminated, politically charged language that has confused the ways we name who we are and whom we worship.
In response to those who tidy up the Bible to make it more user-friendly, I would suggest that if God had wanted to deliver a list of unambiguous instructions, God surely would have done so. Since God did not, it behooves us to take it on the terms offered. The Bible is not a user’s manual, but an unfolding story of God’s love for God’s people. What its stories do is invite us in.
So this is a plea for a generous literacy as an avenue of generous orthodoxy. Three basic questions seem to me useful in approaching scripture, as well as other texts: What does this text invite you to do? What does this text require of you? And what will this text not let you do?
EACH OF THESE questions brings our attention to the “social contract” we enter when we read. We may be invited to accept some unlikely events to grasp God’s magnitude and mystery: to identify with a slave girl, to sympathize with a barren woman’s sorrow, or to have compassion on a bumbling disciple. We will certainly be required to step outside our cultural assumptions about gender, race, money, and family relationships, and to consider how the original hearers might have understood Jesus’ parables or preaching. And we will surely find it a prohibitive and pointless task to make all of Jesus’ (and Paul’s) teachings fit into a neat codex of acceptable practices for Christians. To read it well is to pray that on the particular occasion of this particular reading, we will receive the manna offered for this day.
The God who made us free leaves us free to discern, interpret, and revise as we dwell in the mysterious text we accept, as we inhabit stories that point us to the One who remains “the same, yesterday, today, and forever.” From the Hebrew scripture stories, with their odd incompleteness and sketchy characters, to the arcana of the prophets to the parables of Jesus and the theological conundrums of Paul, one thing we can say definitively and generally about scripture is that it not only allows, but demands, reflective, flexible, open-ended interpretation.
The surprising title of John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? offers an indispensable question to bring to our reading of the Bible. How it means is at least as essential a question as what it means. That the psalms are poetry, and that poetic discourse makes different demands than historical or prophetic or parabolic or mythic discourse, is basic information for readers who seek the gifts each offers. Those gifts come with different restrictions as to proper use. Few would dispute the observation that we can’t read Emily Dickinson the same way we read The New York Times. Or that it matters whether we call a book fiction or nonfiction, though writers of both are responsible for delivering something we recognize as “true.”
“Tell all the truth,” Emily Dickinson advised, “but tell it slant. / Success in circuit lies.” She ends that poem with a biblical allusion of no small weight: “The truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” This appears to be God’s own good judgment about our limitations: We cannot bear to see God face to face. So we see burning bushes and pillars of cloud and a man who died a violent death on Friday eating fish for breakfast on Monday. And we are amazed.
Certain certainties are a great danger to the church. Rather, I would pray for discernment in the midst of differences, for love that trumps a sense of rightness and keeps us in conversation, and for guidance in the gray area where God has called us to live. It is holy ground.
Marilyn McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans, May 2009), was a fellow at the Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, Westmont College, when this article appeared.